Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Self-censorship

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There are two kinds of self-censorship.

One is the restraint that emerges when writing memoir or other non-fiction, and you find yourself writing about living people who may feel hurt or slandered about what you have to say. That’s outside my field, and I can’t offer any advice one way or another.

But the other form of self-censorship – the one I want to talk about here – is both the greatest threat, but also an opportunity for the writer. This is the type of self-censorship that shows up like a knot building inside the writer the moment writing ventures into territory that feels dangerous, that makes the writer feel vulnerable. This is fertile territory, a space that young writers need to find and explore.

You must get comfortable with emotional spaces that make you uncomfortable, and explore topics that carry a threatening charge. This is when meaningful writing happens.

Writing is art, and art flourishes when the artist embraces risk.

Some years ago I was camping near Lake Placid in upstate New York. A hand-written sign in the welcome centre read “Tonight, presentation by writer Russell Banks.” Are you kidding? I thought. We’re camped at the edge of wilderness and Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction and a bunch of other books, is here? I thought it was a joke.

It wasn’t.

He did an enjoyable and engaging talk about the interexchange between fiction and real life, and read a short story published a few years earlier in a major magazine. Afterward, I asked him if he ever came up against material that he could not address. He responded that this was rare, but that it happened from time to time. After a brief pause, looking away, he looked straight at me and added, “and when that happens it’s very painful.”

I took a lot from that, for what was said, but also for what was implicit: Go after the material you cannot address and, yes, if you fail, it will hurt, but at the very least you will have tried.

This will sound familiar to those who have taken my creative writing classes. There is an exercise we will often do, usually mid-way through a course. I ask the students to open their notebooks and, on a page which they will show to nobody except unless they choose to, they write down things that they have thought of writing about but have avoided, for whatever reason.

It’s the things we avoid that we must pursue. I encourage everyone to keep track of what they are avoiding. To make the most of their writing, they need to take dead aim at this material.

If material has emotional resonance for the writer and, there is a high likelihood that the writer can make this material emotionally resonant for the reader.

Finally, there is also that odious other form of censorship, the one that comes from without and not from self. This is the type of censorship that comes from people, organizations, or governments telling you what you should and should not write about. These are forces that aim to act upon you, but have nothing to do with you, your conscience, or speaking as your honest self. We can all do with less of this censorship too, it blunts the spirit and, at its worst, it is a debasement of all people and all society. Let people speak freely, ideas and opinions tend to sort themselves out when exchanged, and can become insidious when bottled up. Overcoming external censorship is a struggle for all people, and it is a struggle that will never end.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Ken Murray

Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in journals, newspapers and magazines in both Canada and the United States. An avid athletic amateur, he likes kiteboarding, skiing, snowboarding, running and cycling. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel.

You can contact Ken throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Ken Murray’s Author Page